The Hugo Awards are science fiction writing's highest honor, and this year conservative fans, concerned with the liberal leanings of recent awards, banded together to nominate their sci-fi ideals. Brooke speaks with actor and writer Arthur Chu about how the awards controversy reflects a larger history of cultural backlash.
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Brooke: The Hugo Awards are the highest honor in science fiction writing. This year, more than 2,000 ballots nominated the Hugo Award finalists, and most voted in concert with two conservative camps, who call themselves the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. They contend that the Hugo Awards have fallen prey to a liberal elitist agenda. In a recent interview, Larry Correia, who helped assemble the Sad Puppies, and named them, said he had to organize against the clique dominating the Hugos because it would never let him win, because of his pro-gun and conservative beliefs.
CORREIA: A big clique of people, talking about how, well you know, we’re never going to read him. He’s a horrible person. We can’t have horrible people like this recognized. He’s going to end literature forever. It was absurd. But I come from a political background where you don’t put up with that crap, you fight it.
BROOKE: So Correia and others got together to vote as a body on a chosen slate of relatively obscure nominees, to make a point. And it worked. Many science fiction fans and writers, including George RR Martin, say the prize has been broken beyond repair, vanquished by politics. Arthur Chu, an actor, writer, and serious science fiction fan, says that the puppies “freeped” the Hugos, a practice of biasing polls that dates back more than a decade.
CHU: “Freeping” refers to the name of the website The Free Republic, the right wing political site notorious in the past for sending groups of its members to flood polls and comments sections to provide the appearance of a very strong right wing majority. They would say 'freep this poll' and have everyone descend on it at once.
BROOKE: And we've seen Stephen Colbert do similar things in messing with Wikipedia.
CHU: With wikipedia, with getting a bridge in Hungary named after himself, or a module of the ISS. A lot of people don't realize that when he was leveraging his fanbase to pull these pranks, he was specifically referencing something that right wing personalities on the internet had been doing in earnest.
BROOKE: So, relate this "freeping" to the Hugo Awards. You can pay 40 bucks, join WorldCon, the science fiction association, and vote for a nominee, that sounds very democratic.
CHU: Right, they've just always trusted in the past that people who are willing to pay 40 dollars are the people who are most invested, who have read the most during the past year, and who have the strongest best informed opinions. But that makes it very vulnerable to be gamed by people who are also willing to pay 40 dollars because they have a political axe to grind, especially because the Hugo voting has two phases, nomination and then final voting. And nomination, any work during the whole year, is eligible, so that means that people voting in good faith, not coordinating with each other, are very likely to pick a wide array of different choices, which means that even a very small group who is coordinating with each other, can easily dominate the nomination phase by all nominating the same set of works, and that's what's happened this year.
BROOKE: Isn't that what happened in 1987 when the church of scientology engaged in a similar tactic and signed up en masse to cast their votes for L Ron Hubbard, who then made it onto the ballot but lost the awards?
CHU: Right. The difference is, with the church of Scientology and other authors in the past who have gotten their fans to put them on the ballot, it's always been about putting one book that everyone is backing, or one person, they would be up against 4 other people in the finals and then people could make a fair choice between them. What has happened in this year, is instead of doing that, they've coordinated to nominate the same slate across the board, so that the whole category is made entirely of their candidates and everyone else is crowded out. And that leads to some pretty ridiculous results like three of the candidates for best novella being written by the same person, John C Wright.
BROOKE; Aha, so, who is John C Wright?
CHU: He was best known originally as the author of the novel the Golden Age, part of the trilogy The Golden Oecumene. A big ideas science fiction writer with right wing political leanings, at some point he started becoming better known for his political views than his writing. He went on a rant about how the sci fi channel was contributing to the fall of civilization by including more gay and lesbian characters on their shows, and over time he has gotten more and more strident with putting his political view in the work. like the Mist of Everness series, interrupts [?] which is supposedly a fantasy story taking place in a dream world to talk about why America should go back on the Gold Standard, or why we should have nuked moscow in the cold war.
The works that are nominated for the hUgo this year are work that very few people have read because they were published in ebook form, by a micro publisher based in Finland called Castalia House.
BROOKE: Why did the Sad and Rabid PUppies pick Castilia House?
CHU: Well, Castilia House is owned by a guy named Theodore Beale, who goes by the penname Vox Dei, the only regular member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to be expelled from the organization.
CHU: He was expelled because he used the science fiction and fantasy writers of America twitter to post a link to a blogpost where he called an African American author, NK Genison, a half savage. He was making the argument that people of other races are not fully civilized, and that therefore they are not capable of doing the work necessary to sustain a genre of literature like science fiction that white men created the genre, and white men have to continue to sustain it.
BROOKE: he's the guy who said that the Taliban's shooting of Malala Yousafzai was "perfectly rational" and "scientifically justifiable" -- you say that Vox Dei is pretty much on every list there is of hate speech radicals on the internet.
CHU: Oh yeah, yeah. In fact it's quite likely if you have a work filter on your computer that his blog will be filtered out. It's on several such lists.
BROOKE; So his publishing house got 9 nominations through this sort of freeping enterprise.
CHU: Yes, plus a tenth nomination for Vox Dei himself as best editor.
BROOKE; you've likened the Sad and Rabid Puppies, to GamerGate which refers to a very active group video game fans battling what they see as the same liberal feminine creep into their medium. They send death threats to female game designers, they harry female game reviewers offline, are they in fact the same people?
HCU: Some of them are the same people: Vox Dei, in particular, is in pretty much every one of these movements. The two things that are the same within this movement and other similar movements are one this sense of entitlement that so called gamers think that the whole medium of interactive computer entertainment belongs to them because they were there first, they were the core audience. And that the same kind of elitism in the Sad Puppies movement. IT's a weird thing, they talk about being populist, but what they talk about what really makes them mad about the elite they think run things now, it's always "oh they don't know Asimov, they don't know Hineland" - the reputed refrain is Robert Heinlein couldn't win the Hugo today is because he was too politically conservative. And it's really just that the genre as a whole has moved beyond robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. and yet, they're convinced that if you don't know this canon, you're not really a science fiction fan.
BROOKE: You suggest that the fervent hate of disco by rock loving young white men in the 1970s was sort of a precursor to what we're seeing now. Tell me about disco demolition night?
CHU: Right, that is sa riot that took place in Chicago
BROOKE: This was on July 12, 1979
CHU: Mhmm. There was a local DJ who was riling up anti-disco sentiment, for fun, for ratings. Getting his listeners to go to disco concerts and yell stuff at the stage, and eventually they gathered all these disco records and blew them up with explosives. People who have stories about being beaten up because they listen to disco. You don't get that level of vitriol just from simple musical tastes, it stands for something else. Disco was music that was embraced by the gay community. Disco was music that was embraced by the black community. Disco was music that was seen as less American, less masculine. The backlash, the anger when a culture starts changing, and it's changing in favor of some minority group that you feel like what you have is being threatened, and often it's coded in gender: disco was girly. These new indie games the core gamers don't like they're girly. They're games about relationships and literary metaphors and poetry, and the fear of emasculation is such a central psychological thing in these backlashes. It has to be something that deep, and the fear of emasculation runs pretty deep in our culture to evoke that kind of violence.
BROOKE: Cameron Hurley, a Hugo winner and frequent nominee, noted that last year, work by women and people of color swept the Nebula awards, in addition to the Hugos. And partly that's because our demographics are shifting, and our politics are too. For instance 61% of young Republicans favor gay marriage. But Hurley says that the Sad Puppies and their counterparts in gaming and comics, still matter, despite these demographics because those genres explore what possible world we could build.
CHU: Right. Science Fiction is supposed to be a genre about the future, but so frequently it's about our anxieties about the future and trying to cling to the past. If you read a lot of golden age science fiction it's about positing a world where we have spaceships, where we have faster than light travel and artificially intelligent computers, but women are still the secretaries and men are still the adventurers. These social things, gender roles, social class, capitalism, don't change .it's just the trappings of our technology change. Genuine social change is actually actively scary to a lot people who like the science fiction genre because of its message of stability, of unchangingness, ironically enough.
BROOKE: We can see it as a symbol for what's going on across culture generally. What is the next thing that's going to go?
CHU: In GamersGate, they keep talking about spreading to other media: comics gate, metal gate, about heavy metal music. They do see it as an all encompassing culture war.
BROOKE: this movement of puppies, presents itself as underdogs and maybe it's because last year women and people of color swap the science fiction awards. Maybe they are the underdogs, because they can't win. You know, they can destroy every award that can be freeped, but fundamentally culture is going to be decided by groups of people in the marketplace who far outnumber these engaged communities.
CHU: But at the same time they can do a lot of damage in the short term. Loud, powerful scary voices can intimidate people. Comics was stuck in that mode for a long time. All the time people who were in charge of comics were like, "this industry can't survive if it's the same small clique of aging white men who have read comics sinc ethe were kids, we've got to get new blood". Meanwhile they go this outcry from the old hardcore fans who've kind of got a death grip.
BROOKE: But now you have a jewish thing, and you have a black captain america, and a disco song recently at the top of the charts --
CHU: Won the Grammy for best song, yeah. And we've got a muslim woman Ms Marvel is the best selling comic book right now. so these things change. You hit a turning point at some point. And since they are the underdogs in another sense. They're just being asked to share, to acknowledge they're a minority. IT's not like what they want will disappear. I can go get old school comics about guys blowing things up easily now, it's just that that's increasingly a niche. They don't own the whole market. And the fear of being irrelevant is the thing i think that drives them, not the fear of not having something to read.
BROOKE: Arthur, thank you very much.
CHU: Thank you.
BROOKE: Arthur Chu is an actor and writer on culture and society.